We’ve all seen this before. The Toronto Raptors, struggling to do anything but spin their tires in the mud decided to make a big splash, not with a player acquisition, but with the hiring of the NBA’s “hot” executive. First it was Bryan Colangelo and his high collared suits being lured to Toronto shortly after winning NBA Executive of the Year, now 7 years later, Masai Ujiri, fresh off his own Executive of the Year Award has been tapped to replace Colangelo to turn around this moribund franchise.
Can Masai Ujiri can do what Bryan Colangelo could not and build a sustainable winner in Toronto? That remains to be seen, but he certainly bought himself some time with his fleecing of the NY Knicks with the Andrea Bargnani trade.
Given his success in Denver, and the lack of flexibility with the current roster, Ujiri will need time to build a roster that he wants, and while the Raptors have been preaching patience for the past 17 or so years, this time it’s deserved. With the seemingly planned and measured actions of Ujiri so far in his tenure, Raptors fans can breathe easy as an actual plan towards contention for the NBA title seems to be in place for possibly the first time in franchise history.
Dealing away Andrea Bargnani and the $22 million remaining on his contract was more than just a moral victory, Ujiri not only managed to convince the Knicks that Bargs was actually worth more than a broken down laundry machine, but he managed to improve the roster in the process.
Last season in his limited action with the Raps were -5.3 points per 100 possessions with Bargnani on the floor. He provided very little offensive value, and was an utter liability defensively. Not having to force feed an overpaid, underperforming asset will make the Raptors a better team in itself.
Kyle Lowry is entering the final season of his contract and has yet to prove that he is a starting point guard in the Association. Whether or not he has a healthy and successful season could mean the difference between a big money long-term contract in the offseason, or fighting for a job next year in training camp. The added motivation is evident with how Lowry showed up in the “best shape of his life” to training camp (by all accounts he actually did). If his new-found fitness and contract related motivation translates onto the floor, the Raptors should find themselves in the thick of things in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Jonas Valanciunas is perhaps the only player on the Toronto Raptors roster that can be viewed as an untouchable. The 21-year old Lithuanian centre had a solid rookie season, and continued his positive growth in the offseason as he represented his country at Eurobasket. After he spent the offseason adding bulk in order to withstand the rigours of the NBA season, Valanciunas is ready to take the next step in his game. With greater trust from Dwayne Casey, and less depth at the centre position, Valanciunas should be a force to be reckoned with.
Valanciunas, along with Amir Johnson will be key to establishing the defensive identity of the Raptors. The two already make for a formidable defensive pairing, with both big men on the floor last season, the Raptors defensive allowed a stingy 96.5 points per 100 possessions, better than the league-leading mark posted by the Indiana Pacers.
That kind of defense is what will one day make the Raptors contenders in the Eastern Conference, and with more time in Dwayne Casey’s system, and another year of maturity under his belt, there’s no reason to believe that Valanciunas cannot improve it.